Supporting expanded school vouchers for private schools apparently is becoming the proverbial third rail for Republicans in some parts of Arizona.
It seemed that way last week in Ahwatukee as a mini Blue Wave upended state Rep. Jill Norgaard, sank all but one GOP school board candidate and extended so far down the ticket that it wrested even minor judicial offices away from Republican control.
While thousands of ballots in the county remained to be counted at press time, a final count is no expected to affect the stunning results of the election, which made Legislative District 18 the 11th in the state to be fully in the hands of Democrats.
Unofficial results at Tuesday’s press deadline showed:
Democrats Rep Mitzi Epstein with 28.4 percent of the vote and Chandler newcomer Jennifer Jermaine with 26.8 percent to Norgaard’s 23.8 percent and Greg Patterson’s 21.3 percent.
LD 18 incumbent Sen. Sean Bowie swamped Tempe pilot Frank Schmuck by nearly 12,000 votes, giving him 56.6 percent of the vote in one of the most expensive legislative races in Arizona.
The GOP fared no better in the nonpartisan races for two seats on each of the school boards in the two districts that include Ahwatukee.
Kyrene saw Republican Margaret Pratt of Ahwatukee lead the four-way race with 31 percent and Chandler Democrat Kevin Walsh with 27 percent, beating two other Ahwatukee candidates, Democrat David Hoye and Republican Mike Middleton. Hoye, a former teacher and journalist, received 25 percent of the vote while Middleton, a Realtor, garnered 17 percent.
In Tempe Union High School District, Tempe Democrats Andres Barraza and Brian Garcia handed Ahwatukee attorney Don Fletcher his second defeat in two election cycles.
ASU law student Garcia led the three-way race for two seats with 38 percent while Barraza, a coffee importer and former fireman who unsuccessfully ran two years ago for the job, got 32 percent. Left in the cold was Fletcher, with 30 percent.
Former longtime Republican legislator Bob Robson, who fell victim in the 2016 legislative election to Epstein, lost his bid to succeed retiring Republican Justice of the Peace John McComish.
He was defeated by Sharron Sauls, an Ahwatukee mother of two who has put her master’s of legal studies to use as a landlord-tenant counselor and city Housing Court administrator. She captured 59 percent of the vote to Robson’s 41 percent.
Ahwatukee Republican Brandon Schmoll, who decided not to seek a second term on the Tempe Union school board, lost his race for a second term as constable to Democrat Kent Rini, who got 58 percent of the vote to Schmoll’s 42 percent.
“I was a little surprised by the margins,” said Bowie. “We were seeing trends in early voting where we were pretty much even, but we had a strong ground operation.”
By far the most stunning result was Norgaard’s failure to attain a third term.
But Bowie and even some Republicans pinned her defeat expressly on the public perception that Republican legislators who supported expanding the voucher system were doing so at the expense of public education.
“Our district has been changing,” said Bowie. “It’s becoming younger and more diverse and education is important issue. People moved to Ahwatukee for the schools and they want legislators to fight for public schools. I think voters appreciate that.”
In LD18, Republicans dominated registration with 53,751, but registered independents number 49,711 – significantly higher than the 40,080 registered Democrats.
While the district includes pieces of Chandler, Tempe and Mesa, Ahwatukee registration figures show Republicans lead in registration with 18,762 to 16,855 independents and 16,039 Democrats.
The gaps among those three registration categories shrink considerably where both Kyrene and Tempe Union High School districts’ numbers are concerned. While there are 34,391 registered Republicans in Kyrene, Democrats and independents aren’t far behind with 31,906 and 31,577, respectively.
And in Tempe Union, Democrats have a major registration lead with nearly 61,000 compared to about 50,000 Republicans and approximately 56,500 independents.
In both the LD 18 Senate and House races, education dominated the campaign – but in different ways.
In his fourth bid for the Legislature and his second for the Senate – a repeat of the 2016 showdown with Bowie – Schmuck portrayed himself as a supporter of education. But Schmuck, at the only forum he attended, also said that he supported school choice – as did Patterson and Norgaard.
That and a series of aggressive attacks on Bowie likely sunk Schmuck.
“He was much more negative than he was the last time,” Bowie said of Schmuck. “It was nasty and in a personal way. It really surprised me. Nothing I did on the campaign was personal; I did point out where I thought he was wrong but I also stressed my support for public education and my bipartisan approach to issues. I promised that in 2016 and I could show voters I kept my promises.”
Bowie also said Schmuck’s failure to attend the September Clean Elections Commission debate and at least one other forum hurt him, although Patterson and Norgaard showed up at every forum and that didn’t seem to help them.
That’s possibly because Norgaard and Patterson came out in favor of school choice.
Patterson at both debates poo-pooed the notion that vouchers hurt education and proclaimed himself one of the architects of the initial voucher system that was introduced into Arizona when he was in the Legislature in the mid-1990s.
Even though she voted for the voucher bill in the 2017 legislative session that sparked Prop 305 – overwhelmingly defeated by a 2-1 margin last week – Norgaard sought to distance herself from the proposition.
She noted that the so-called education empowerment scholarship accounts were designed initially for special needs students whose parents could not find adequate services in public school districts. The Legislature has gradually expanded those grants and many Republican leaders made it clear they were aiming to include all parents in the program.
Norgaard said she likely would vote “no” on Prop 305 because it did not have enough safeguards for special needs and other students now covered by the grants, saying they’d be left behind.
“She tried to straddle the issue and it didn’t work,” said one Republican activist, who requested anonymity.
“Jill was the most decorated legislator in the district,” another GOP activist said, pointing to her work on setting up the state’s first program to identify and help dyslexic students at an early age as well as her involvement in both Kyrene and Tempe Union.
But Democrats hammered on her vote in the 2017 session to expand vouchers and in the end, even Republican counterattacks on Epstein’s “no” vote on the governor’s budget – which included the 10 percent raise for teachers – failed to get much traction.
That’s likely because Epstein and the rest of the House Democratic delegation that opposed the governor’s budget had insisted that the 208-19 state spending plan did not restore overall public education funding to levels that existed before the 2008 recession.
Indeed, the results not only in LD 18 but also statewide and in the Tempe Union and Kyrene districts suggested that Red for Ed made barely a dent in most races.
Few teachers who ran for Legislature won anywhere last week in Arizona.
In at least one more local election, it was possible that Democrat David Hoye lost his bid for a seat on the Kyrene board because his supporters were particularly vocal in stressing his support for teachers.
The notable exceptions were for state Superintendent of Public Education, where teacher Kathy Hoffman beat her Republican challenger, and in neighboring Legislative District 17, where former educator and Democrat Jennifer Pawlik of Chandler cracked the previously all-Red district and defeated Nora Ellen, the mother of former House Speaker J.D. Mesnard.
Ellen was hoping to succeed her termed-out son in the House as he went on to win his bid for Senate in LD 17.
Additionally, Desert Vista High School teacher Lara Bruner, a Chandler resident, won her bid for the Chandler Unified school board.
John King, an Ahwatukee Republican serving his second term on the Kyrene school board, said he believes the 2018 election results should serve as a warning to Republicans and that they should focus first on shoring up the infrastructure of public education before trying any more to expand the voucher program.
“I support charter schools,” he said. “I think competition is good.”
He said such competition encourages public school districts to improve their service to students, pointing to Kyrene as an example of how that district has consistently distinguished itself in student achievement results not only statewide but nationally.